Robert Jenson: Burns Lecture 6 – Genesis 1:1 and Luke 1:26–38

jenson-2For his grand finale Robert Jenson offered a practical demonstration of what had been argued for in the first five lectures, namely, a creedal critical exegesis of Scripture. Due to time limitations Jenson took as his text Genesis 1:1-3 only. The joy of hearing him on this text was that it touched on many of the key themes of Jenson’s thought and gave us a kind of overview of his doctrine of creation and time.

His starting point was the observation that, although the two well-known translations of Genesis 1:1 are both grammatically possible, the shift in the NRSV to the temporal subordinate clause (‘when God created the heavens and the earth’) is a move from the most straightforward and default translation to something that more closely reflects the religiosity of ancient paganism. (There is no reason, Jenson contends, to abandon the LXX and KJV here) It is a departure from radical Judaism to a view of the universe in which chaos is antecedent to and coeval with God’s creating. Jenson noted that if in the beginning there is both God and chaos then both God and chaos are involved – at least at one level – in our creation. Creedal criticism, where the creed provides the lens for our suspicion of appearances, makes us immediately alert to this reading which assimilates YHWH to the anthropomorphic gods of religion. Even if it is only chaos it is a foothold outside God – a point of independence – something other than the absolute beginning of the Christian faith. It challenges our faith in the world’s ‘self-founded timeless being’. It is, says Jenson, Scripture’s scandalous ‘metaphysical put-down’ that we try and avoid. Interestingly, Jenson notes this same impulse in the cosmologist’s attempt to avoid creatio ex nihilo by means of positing multiple universes – a totally untestable and therefore unscientific hypothesis, which has nothing other than the conviction of ‘no absolute beginning’ as its basis.

With an eye on the creed Jenson continues: ‘Who is this God who tolerates no antecedents of his work?’ Creedal criticism assumes it to be obvious that it is the Father of the Son, Jesus Christ. It thus justifies the gloss ‘In the beginning the Father of Jesus created the heavens and the earth’. Thus we may conclude that ‘the contingency of the world is founded on the contingency of the life of Jesus’.

Jenson cites Westermann to claim that Genesis 1:1 is a caption summary for the whole story that follows. This then leads on to 1:2, which is where the creation narrative properly begins. Jenson claims that the best scholarship locates this verse in the post-exilic editing of a priestly savant in the second temple and then poses the question of whether this scholar was (a) thinking paganly or (b) using pagan language of Near Eastern mythology to serve the purposes of 1:1. Under the guidance of the creed, Jenson choses to read it the second way. His account of 1:2 is something like this. Given the unavoidable sequentiality of the narration of events, the writer wields the language of subsistent nothingness as a place-marker to indicate an absence. There can be no question about before. In Jenson’s phraseology, ‘To ask what was God doing before he created the world is a dumb question.

Again in verse 3 Jenson’s creedally-suspicious mind spots ideology at work in the NRSV’s translation of ‘a wind from God’ where in every other instance of the phrase ruach elohim is translated ‘Spirit of/from God’. What’s more, because Genesis 1:3 is a late text the tradent knew this title. Jenson’s creedal reading thus concludes ‘The Holy Spirit agitated the empty possibility posited when God begins to create and there is nothing’. What’s more, this suggests that there is an ‘inner liveliness in God’ which is directed towards making something when there is nothing.

At this point Jenson offered asides on the Nicene concept of the Holy Spirit as ‘enlivener’ and the folly of continuing to insist on the filoque which was after all an illegal addition.

From here the story of creation begins: (a) God said let there be light; (b) God saw that the light was good; (c) God separated the light from the darkness. The world simply is an affirmative response to God’s command: ‘That’s all there is to it’! And this explosion of energy (light) is good (for something). Here Jenson explores all the non-creedal and non-trinitarian puzzlements surrounding this text. A monotheistic/Unitarian/Aristotelian God cannot speak. For such a god eternity is necessarily silent.  At best, if a god like Aristotle’s did speak it would be an act of condescension. Moreover, for such a god to speak presupposes a polytheistic pantheon. However the creedal critic knows that not only can the Triune God speak, but God can be conceived as a conversation. ‘God is a conversation’. Only the Triune God who is a conversation can issue a command to creation before creation existed because the second person of the Trinity is himself a creature – Jesus of Nazareth. At this point Jenson talked of a conversation in which the Son, as the creature Jesus Christ, hears and speaks. ‘In what language does God speak?’, Jenson provocatively asks. In the language of Spirit – that universally self-translating language heard by the prophets, and which at Pentecost all the nations heard as their own.

And God saw that the light was good. Was it good because he saw it so, or did he discover it to be good? Jenson responds that there is ‘no humanly ascertainable difference’. However the key question Jenson moves quickly on to is, ‘Good for what?’ And here he refers us to the second and third articles of the creed – that is, that creation is the good stage for the drama of Jesus Christ. Moreover, this 78-year old ‘unreliable’ Lutheran affirms with Barth that creation is the ‘outer basis’ or ground for the covenant and its events, and that covenant is the inner ground of creation.

What about darkness? Does God create a non-good. Jenson accepts Augustine’s reading of darkness as absence, where light runs out. Evil is the ‘running out’ of being in its finitude. Thus like the dimming of light an apparent necessity (or at least an actuality) of created finitude. The creation of life includes within it ‘death on an enormous scale.’

The story moves from the creation of life (‘energy’ in (post-)modern parlance) to its endless differentiation. Jenson comments: ‘Never rest too much on agreement between science and theology’ precisely because science is constantly changing and it is inherent in its claim to be science that it is open to such change. So Jenson argues, our priestly savant used the best science of his day to tell of God’s creation of the world – ‘what other science was there?’ We ought to emulate his courage?

Question time followed. The first question in the gladiatorial fray went to the heart of Jenson’s theology asking whether the creatureliness of the Son (no logos asarkos) implied the eternity of creation (pantheism?). Jenson, clearly familiar with the need to defend this ‘novelty’ in his thought, was surprisingly brief in his response. It was two-fold: (a) his Ockham’s razor saw no need for a pre-incarnate logos (begging some prima facie questions posed by John’s prologue, of the Word’s becoming) and (b) a pre-incarnate logos becoming flesh presupposes a common timeline in divine and human history. This doesn’t correspond to Jenson’s view of the relation between time and eternity, and is a nonsense. However, he didn’t feel the need to defend this claim here. No doubt time did not permit.

Further questions focused on theodicy. In different ways, Jenson’s succinct conclusion was that ‘we can’t get God off the hook for evil. We can’t do it, but we have confidence that God can do it!’ Jenson mentioned in passing the open theist theodicy which diminishes the notion of omnipotence so that God is not morally responsible for all that happens. Jenson is not personally happy with this, but was not completely dismissive either.

The lecture was a powerful presentation of Christian reading/exegesis which depends on the premises of his previous lectures (see I, IIIIIIV and V). One might reasonably be not entirely convinced by Jenson’s radically post-modern/pre-modern scepticism with respect to objective meaning in texts (see Lecture 5) and therefore have some doubts about the pathway Jenson takes to a theological interpretation. Are authorial intentions really as private as Jenson suggests (and Vanhoozer, for example, denies)? A comment Jenson made to post-graduates at a seminar on Wednesday morning about the infinite malleability of texts makes one wonder about the distinction between reading a text and projecting onto the text – if this distinction is lost the proposal of a creedal exegesis seems to have a certain kind of arbitrariness. However, even if Jenson is wrong about hermeneutics, it does not follow that his theological reflections on the text of Genesis 1 are wrong, just that its relation to something one might call ‘the meaning of Genesis 1’ is different from how he conceives it.

One might also think that Jenson’s suggestion that the contingent creaturely life of Jesus is part of the eternal life and conversation which is the Triune God requires considerably more unpacking than Jenson is want to do. Might Jenson’s formulation suggest that this creature who is also creator might be in fact self-creating? Might Ockham be cutting himself shaving?

A final thought: however one arrives, one never leaves a Jenson lecture unchanged. Whether he is lecturing on theology proper, on eschatology, on the Trinity, on culture, on anthropology, on ecumenism or on the relationship between Holy Scripture and the Church’s Creeds, Jenson is undoubtedly one of the most original and erudite theologians of our time. Certainly, as one commentator noted, ‘Jenson’s mind makes stimulating company’. One comes away from this series of Burns Lectures with a renewed love for Scripture, with a new appreciation of the abiding witness and value of the Church’s Creeds, and with a lively sense of doxological fervour for the Triune God. At the end of the day, isn’t that what all theology exists to be about?

 

Past Lectures:

1. Creed, Scripture, and Their Modern Alienation

2. The Tanakh as Christian Scripture

3. The New Testament and the Regula Fidei

4. The Apostles’ Creed

5. The Creed as Critical Theory of Scripture

 

Notes by Bruce Hamill and Jason Goroncy

4 thoughts on “Robert Jenson: Burns Lecture 6 – Genesis 1:1 and Luke 1:26–38

Comments welcome here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s